The institution of slavery in America’s southern states was based primarily in economics rather than some inherent adoration of the practice itself. When the Mason-Dixon line was created in the 1760s, Eli Whitney’s revolutionary cotton gin (which would eventually solidify slavery in the South) has not yet been created. Still, despite this fact, there were lines being drawn between the more industrial-based economy of the North and the agricultural economy of the South. Slavery formed the backbone of the South economically and as it became more widespread after Whitney’s invention, it became just as much the political and social basis of Southern identity as well.
The treatment of slaves was generally deplorable and even the kindest plantation masters were more concerned with making a profit than making sure their slaves were treated well. With only a minimal amount of money required to actually purchase and maintain slaves, this became the best from of labor and allowed many owners of plantations to become very wealthy. Without slavery however, it is more likely that these plantation owners would be too busy working the fields to have the time to go off to defend the practice politically.
Although cotton was a part of the agricultural yield, crops such as rice, indigo, and tobacco were the most cultivated and although tobacco remained a primary crop as well, the need for cotton eventually replaced the reliance on tobacco as a main product. It wasn’t until the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin that the Southern cotton industry began to boom. With this invention, southern plantations were able to produce far more in a shorter amount of time. This led to more slaves being required to keep up with the ever-present demand for cotton, particularly by the Northern states. Along with this greater potential to yield more cotton came a growing economic dependence on slavery since without such free labor there would never have been a cotton industry as powerful as the one that had developed in the years following the 1793 introduction of the cotton gin.
Due to the practice of slavery (and even a reported rise in the number of new slaves being born into bondage as opposed to being brought in from African countries) Southern states such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi were able to have solid economies that were directly based in the production and export of cotton and some less principal items such as tobacco and rice. This led to an economic strength that made these states even more adamant about defending the right to own slaves. There was no question that without slavery the antebellum would crumble and thus the South was able to weather the growing number of revolts, rebellions, and northern political opposition that was mounting.
After 1860 the South seceded from the Union and the Civil War began. The importance of slavery in the South was an important reason for this war to occur in the first place and it eventually led to the decline of the practice in an area that had so vehemently supported it. With Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was thought that that slavery in the South would be abolished. Although the Proclamation went far in condemning the practice, it wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that slavery was constitutionally (as opposed to morally) declared illegal.
After the Civil War the South was decimated politically, socially, and most importantly economically. Without the free labor to cultivate the fields, the former antebellum South fell into complete ruin. It cannot be underestimated how large the financial impact was after the removal of slavery as a Southern institution and even though the Reconstruction Era attempted to build the South back up to its formerly successful state, this was never quite realized and even today, the legacy of the South’s failed slavery and consequent economic success is felt. The Northern cities had control and dominance in the industrial sector, which proved to be more successful than agriculture-especially after mass imports and exports became commonplace and South’s eventually decline was imminent.